How to Be a Decent Airline Captain


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Here’s my perspective after more than 27 years (and counting) as a captain at the world’s largest airline. When you are lucky enough to attain that fourth stripe, your challenge—and it’s a big one—is to transition from a team player copilot to a decent captain. Yes, I said “decent,” because before you can be good or even excellent, you have to be at least decent.

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Here are my Top Six “decent captain” benchmarks:

1.Focus: There’s a wide spectrum of distraction that spills into your purview as the disparate functions that produce your flight, all of which have complications, setbacks and shortcomings, begin to rear their ugly heads. Don’t get into the weeds with the messy details. Hold firm that “when everything’s right, we’ll fly” then stay out of the sausage-making that is the flight dispatch process. Your job isn’t to fix anyone’s problem, but rather, to hold firm that nothing moves until everything is done properly. In fact, I often make myself scarce when there are maintenance or other logistics problems because they really don’t need another voice in the chaos. I just make sure Flight Dispatch has my cell number and tell them “Call me when everything’s ready,” then head for a crew lounge.

2. Go slow. Not, “drag your feet,” but take it slow and steady, especially when everyone else is rushing, as is typical in the process of turning around a jet and launching it off again. Everyone else in the process is urged to maximize the pace to satisfy time constraints. Your focus is to not rush, not let your crew rush, because you’ll answer for whatever mistakes are made if they don’t take adequate time to fulfill all requirements before the wheels move. You be the one not in a hurry, and reassure the crew that they must pace themselves and not rush.

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3. Stay out of the way. That starts in the cockpit: your First Officer knows what he or she is doing, and they have a lot to do. Stay out of their hair and let them work. Ditto the cabin crew and even the agents. That’s not to say “hands off,” because ultimately, you’re in charge of and accountable for everything that goes on with your flight. But the thing is, if you let people do their jobs—silently observing that everything’s in order—your crew will operate more efficiently than if you micromanage. Don’t interfere in the FO’s preflight flow, just observe that everything’s done properly with a minimum of your input, which a competent copilot really doesn’t need.

4. Never argue. Seriously: you’ve already won—you are the captain and have the final say. There’s really nothing to argue about or no confrontation necessary when you say, “When this is done, we’ll leave. And not until.” Then, as in the “focus” step above, be sure Dispatch has your cell phone number and make yourself scarce.

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5. Trust your instincts. Almost ten years ago, the FAA issued a warning circular based on aircraft manufacturer analysis that stated the automation in today’s airliners has exceeded the human capacity to do backup calculations. You must realize that often problems are layers deep and only surface late in the dynamic, real-time process that is flight. It’s not unusual to admit we “don’t know what we don’t know,” so better to trust an instinct that tells you “something’s just not right” and go to Plan B. And that’s key: have a Plan B, and C and D if necessary. Always have a plan, a backup, an out. Ultimately, if something “just doesn’t feel right”–it probably isn’t.

6. Ask the right questions. This is vital in flight. When complications arise as they always do, don’t ask your First Officer “what do you think of my plan?” You really don’t need that answer as much as this one: “What am I not thinking? What am I missing?” The FO can offer critique or support for “your plan,” but you really need to know what your FO is thinking, what you might be missing, and what you might not have considered.

Mike Tyson said, “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.” Everyone thinks they know how to be an airline captain–until they actually have to do it. That, like a punch in the face, is a reality known only to those who actually wear the fourth stripe and bear the actual responsibility. Life becomes a new kind of serious in the left seat, no matter how it looked from the right seat or anywhere else.

So work on my Top Six, and dedicate yourself to becoming a decent captain. Nothing beyond that is possible until you do, and nothing will work well for you if you don’t. Good luck.

 

My workspace.

My workspace.

 

 

5 Responses to “How to Be a Decent Airline Captain”

  1. Chris, typo in item 6….You are professor in English language?

  2. Florian Wasserburg Says:

    I upgraded to Captain last year so I am still adjusting, however I agree with most of these points. I think the most important part of our job as airline pilots is to be that last line of defense (James Reason/Swiss Cheese model), i.e. to say no even if people put pressure on you to say yes. It’s a question of discipline as well – if you bend a rule or SOP just a little you probably will get away with it, until you don’t (normalization of deviance). The thing is to keep your people (I say people, not crew because beside the flight and cabin crew, ground staff, Operation staff etc are included here as well) motivated and to have an open communication while keeping up the discipline. And I take any concern that anybody has seriously – even if it turns out to be nothing I will always thank the people for pointing out the issue to make sure that they are happy to report the observations to me. If people feel that they are a valued member of the team and that their input indeed is important safety will improve and your people will be happier. I am trying to be approachable as well – if somebody admits a mistake or talks about a personal problem I will discuss the issue openly and I never shout or condemn a mistake – mistakes happen and their is no point in “punishing” a person for a mistake, but rather to mitigate the consequences without putting blame on a person (the mistake could have happened to somebody else as well, so its not a personal problem but a problem on an organizational level as well). I think CRM is the most important part of a Captains job. Since I only upgraded recently I am still adjusting and seeking feedback on my performance but I hope that my approach to the job will result in me being a good captain.

    • I agree with most of that, but try not to think you’ve actually figured it out in your first year: glaringly missing in your experience thus far is the “that scared the shit out of me” story that will help you gain the very realistic perspective that you don’t have it all wired. Going on 28 years as captain has only confirmed how little any of us really has wired. I’m happy to stay “decent” and leave it at that. After you scare the shit out of yourself, you’ll exchange glances with another captain on the van or in Ops and you’ll know what I mean. 😁

  3. John B. Morrison Says:

    Capt. Manno,

    As a Check Airman at FedEx Express, I could not have said this better! Even though we carry packages vs. passengers, we get pressure from Dispatchers, Duty Officers, Ramp Agents, and Station Managers to “be on time”. This missive will be great guidance to our new Captains!

    Fraternally,

    Capt. J.B. Morrison

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